SALEM, Mo. — It might have played out like an ordinary story of a family dog accused of biting someone else’s child, until a mysterious man wearing a baseball cap and a fake beard showed up at the home of Patrick and Amber Sanders, talking about secret codes and safe houses.
At that point, the complicated tale of Phineas, the yellow Labrador retriever on death row, grew well beyond ordinary.
Under quarantine since last June, he had “disappeared” at times — once when the city hid him in the basement of a firehouse. There was talk of a plot to have someone kidnap him. And there were accusations of intimidation and official corruption. In this Ozark town of 5,000, where excitement can be as sporadic as a deer walking past a hunting blind, Phineas became a running soap opera.
Then two weeks ago he vanished, and the town was left wondering.
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Enter the lanky man with the fake beard, who appeared at the home of Phineas’ owners two Fridays ago, claiming to have the answer.
“My heart,” Sanders, 29, recalled, “was just a chugga-lugga-lugging.”
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Phineas had been a part of the Sanders family since 2010, a gift from a friend. They named the dog after a character from the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb.”
His journey to becoming a household name began on a sunny Friday afternoon in late June 2012. Lexie Sanders, 7 at the time, was eating a Popsicle in her backyard with two friends.
As the girls were leaving, Lexie clutched the 25-foot rubber-coated cable that tethered Phineas to a chain-link fence, but she tripped. The next thing she knew, she said, her friend, Kendall Woolman, 7 at the time, had fallen and rolled beneath the high-sprung Chevy pickup truck in the driveway. Kendall screamed and cried.
Lexie said she did not see Phineas bite Kendall, but the other friend, also 7, told the police that she saw him bite her left rib cage and drag her about four feet.
Later that evening, Jarred Brown, the town’s code officer, took Phineas for what was supposed to be a 10-day quarantine while the case was investigated. But the 4-year-old Labrador never returned.
After accusations arose of two previous unreported biting episodes, the Salem mayor, Gary Brown, deemed Phineas a vicious dog under town ordinance, and ordered him euthanized. The dog’s execution was delayed by a court appeal — and there was a brief, unexplained disappearance last fall — but then reinstated in March by Judge Scott Bernstein. City officials quickly moved Phineas to a secret location — it turned out to be the basement garage bay at the fire station — so he would not be snatched before his execution.
Running out of options, Phineas supporters got in touch with the Lexus Project, a dog rescue operation based in New York state. The group set up a “Save Phineas” Facebook page that quickly drew tens of thousands of “likes” (now up to nearly 180,000) and was the catalyst behind a rally and “Save Phineas” billboards along an interstate highway.
Kendall Woolman’s family said they received threats. Joseph P. Simon, a lawyer for the Sanders family, accused a relative of the Woolmans of calling Salem “his sandbox” and threatening to exert his influence on city officials to make sure Phineas died.
The story caught the attention of David Backes, the captain of the St. Louis Blues hockey team, who offered to fly to Salem to rescue the dog and take it to a no-kill shelter.
Approaching his execution date in late April, Phineas got another stay when Simon appealed for a new trial.
With the case pending, Jackie Overby, a Salem resident, said she asked the city administrator, Clayton Lucas, if he could give her the dog so she could usher him away to safety. A few days later, she said, Lucas showed up at her job and said, “We want the dog gone,” and told her that they could make arrangements for her to secretly take him.
Lucas denied ever making such an arrangement. (Brown, the mayor, conceded to joking with Lucas about letting someone kidnap Phineas.)
In late May, city officials moved Phineas into Dr. J.J. Tune’s veterinary office near downtown, but the doctor said he feared that the dog would be stolen because of all the attention and because his clinic was not well secured.
Sure enough, when Meridith Michaels opened the clinic about 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12, Phineas was nowhere to be found. No sign of forced entry, no clues.
“My heart sank to the bottom of the ground,” she said.
The Sanderses feared the worst — that someone had either taken him for ransom or killed him. Amber Sanders, 28, searched the woods.
Concern and doubt festered for days, until a rainy night, the day after the latest court hearing to decide Phineas’ fate. As the Sanderses cleaned up from dinner with their four children, the man appeared at their door, asking for them by name.
“I just want to tell you,” he said, “that Phineas is doing just fine.”
“Well, that’s good,” Sanders said, exhaling.
The man explained that he had seen a Phineas billboard and read about the case on Facebook. Sympathetic, he snatched Phineas and took him to a safe place where he was playing with another dog, the man told them, his fake mustache slipping down his face.
He asked them to set up a safe house, they said, where he could bring Phineas for them to play with. But he did not trust cellphones. So he asked them to activate a landline, and when they had the safe house ready, they were to post the sentence, “I saw a dog today that reminded me of Phineas,” on the Facebook page. That would be his signal to call and arrange a meeting.
Amber Sanders posted the message last Monday, and the man called on Wednesday night from a disposable cellphone. He arranged to return Phineas to them on Saturday morning. With the judge’s decision still pending, they were not taking any chances: They planned to ship Phineas to an undisclosed location.
Yet in a final twist, Bernstein essentially said Friday that the drama should never have happened. He ruled that Phineas did not even bite the girl and overturned the death sentence.
Still worried that people might want to harm Phineas, the Sanderses kept the Saturday reunion secret. The man, wearing his fake beard, arrived at the drop point in a rural patch surrounded by dirt roads before the Sanderses arrived, and when an intermediary told him they were still on their way, he left Phineas and said, “Well, I’ve got to go.”
Minutes later, Salem’s most popular dog was bounding into his owners’ arms.